Critically compare Act Utilitarianism with Rule Utilitarianism Essay

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The concept of utilitarianism can be agreed upon by many; the idea that any action should create the most amount of happiness, for the most number of people. There is however some debate regarding the two main opposing schools of thought for utilitarianism, these being rule-utilitarianism and act-utilitarianism. Act-utilitarianism tells us that the most important aspect of a right or wrong action is its consequences, whereas rule-utilitarianism tells us that we should follow certain rules in order to achieve the most desired consequence.

In this essay I will analyse these different sides to utilitarianism and use examples to show the pros and cons of each theory. I will look to discuss the different approaches and criticisms of utilitarianism, with a strong focus on the works of John Stuart Mill, whose work has been cited to support both sides of utilitarianism. I will argue that rule-utilitarianism will tend to merge into act-utilitarianism if it wants to escape from blindly following harsh rules.The act of keeping promises is something that both sides will contribute to.

If a person makes a promise to a dying single parent, that they will look after their lone child once they have passed, we can see here with an act-utilitarian standpoint that this a perfectly good thing to do, as it creates happiness in the form of relief and security for the dying parent. But after the parent has died, will there still be any need to care for the child under act-utilitarianism?The promise from the person has already created happiness for the deceased parent; so as long as the child is being cared for by somebody, you could argue that the person who made the promise has no real obligation to keep it and they can focus on creating their own happiness again. With rule-utilitarianism the promise would have to be kept and would not allow for an alternative even if the child was being properly, or even better cared for. Rule-utilitarianism requires a promise to be kept, even if the consequences may not appear to continue creating the most happiness.This is to promote keeping the integrity of a society that always keeps its promises – there can be no ley-way here.

It cannot be too difficult for one to imagine situations whereby this thought process could have negligible consequences. If for example you have borrowed a hunting rifle from a friend, and promised to return it, but during the time you have it your friend becomes mentally unstable and violent for whatever reason, it can surely not be a good idea to keep your promise of returning it. In this scenario I feel that returning the weapon would create more disutility than utility.A rule-utilitarian would simply have to obey the rules which he is set, but the act-utilitarian can decide for himself the best course of action. In some situations it may be impractical to analyse all the possible outcomes of an action, but here it should be clear to most that returning a weapon to a now violent person is not the best for society.

In a case such as this, act-utilitarianism appears to be a more viable option, even though a lot of the time running through all possible consequences may not be realistic.For Mill, ultimate happiness should be used as a guideline, similarly to the way it would not be reasonable for a Christian to read through the entire bible before making a moral judgement. More problems arise when it requires the user to continuously commit to action all of the time. In his book, Glover gives the example of him relaxing outdoors chatting to companions, when his time could be better spent donating to charity – at least under act-utilitarianism. He comments: “Our entanglements with people close to us erode simple self-interest.

Husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children and friends all blur the boundaries of selfish concern (Glover 1990: 194)”. This seems to run alongside the idea of following set rules as put forward by rule-utilitarianism, which would also not be creating utility. Act-utilitarianism could also create the opposite effect, whereby too little of an individual would be demanded. If one person decided not to vote in an election, it would most likely not affect the outcome, but if everybody did this, then there would be a great amount of disutility caused.

Peter Singer has an interesting reply to the criticisms from rule-utilitarians upon act-utilitarianism. He argues that act-utilitarianism would be fine if everybody in society were to follow suit. This is quite interesting as it adds a new perspective to consider rather than just act-utilitarianism forcing people to perform actions which create disutility. With Singer’s idea people would not have to perform actions that they felt were wrong.

Nobody would feel it necessary to not tell the truth since others would understand that they were performing an action to create the most utility.Singer says: “Most of the criticism has been inconclusive because it has consisted of the outlining of unusual situations, in which the application of act-utilitarianism is said to give results which conflict with our “ordinary moral convictions” (Singer 1992: 25)”. Rule-utilitarianism allows the follower to make decisive moral judgements without having to run through all the possible scenarios of consequences. Things such as keeping promises or not telling lies is much easier to follow and is also a much easier concept to teach to people.Children may not have the mental capacity or experience to run through the consequences their actions might involve, so teaching them these basic rules could hold an advantage over act-utilitarianism.

However this is not to say that they shouldn’t then adopt an act-utilitarian stand-point when they become older, or simply continue in their rule-worship. Even though these rules do appear to make some sense, utilitarian behaviour cannot be completely controlled by them without encountering some problems.The reason for this is that there are some actions, where the utility or disutility cannot be known until it has actually happened. Situations such as these may make rule-utilitarianism a more attractive prospect, but this rule-worship could be dangerous if we do not know the consequences of our actions.

Rule-utilitarians may try and defend this point by stating that certain actions should be committed only under certain circumstances.However, it is difficult to have a set of rules as complex as this,; there would be so many possible combinations of rules and when to or not to follow them. It is simply not something possible in the real world. This criticism can also be directed at Singer’s defence of act-utilitarianism. There is another way to deal with the difficulties of rule-worship. It is something Mill even considers: “The Expedient, in this sense, instead of being the same thing with the useful, is a branch of the hurtful.

(Mill 1863: 32)”.He does however believe that everybody telling the truth would be a good thing for society but admits “if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another (Mill 1863: 33)” Mill continues to support his own theory: “yet even this rule, sacred as it is, admits of possible exceptions (Mill 1863: 32)”. This is an example of how even Mill’s own theory of utilitarianism starts to fall into the confines of act-utilitarianism. If there appear to be many situations where rules need to be broken, it can no longer be rule-utilitarianism.Mill says “There is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved, and if only one, there can seldom be any real doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognised (Mill 1863: 37)”. Mill suggests that if there are conflicting secondary principles, then the primary principle should be used as the deciding factor.

There is a problem with this as Mabbott suggests, who explains that if there is a confliction of secondary principles and the first principle does not appear to help, then the judging process between these rules seems to fall into act-utilitarianism.A lot of these criticisms and theories as put forward by Mill, Glover and Bentham etc. were written before there was a clearly defined distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. It is for this reason that their works may be cited by the opposing sides of utilitarianism to suit their own arguments.

There are other cases where Mill would rely on the ‘nobility’ of humans to avoid instances where selfishness would conform to act-utilitarianism.If somebody were living in a society where there were energy restrictions in place, they might ignore them to increase their own happiness – and it would not affect anybody else on the whole. If everybody were to act in the same way however, then this would cause a great amount of disutility. There has obviously been a lot of discussion since the death of Mill and other utilitarian writers, so maybe their views or responses would change if they had this extra experience.

This I feel is evident in the fact that their writings can be quoted to support both sides of the argument.Rule-utilitarianism appears to be irrational in many situations, and therefore I feel act-utilitarianism is a more suitable guideline for people who believe in creating the greatest amount of happiness from their actions. Following set rules that may cause disutility is simply not a utilitarian thing to do. I think that Singer makes the most rational case for act-utilitarianism, but it relies heavily on a completely honest and perfectly rational society, which is practically impossible and cannot be applied effectively in the real world.

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